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Bruce Springsteen’s Brilliant Disguise

Bruce Springsteen is a fantastic musician. But he should stick to music rather than interviews in which he offers social commentary. Take Springsteen’s Rolling Stone interview with Jon Stewart, in which Springsteen complains about the level of greed at the top of the financial industry, lavishes praise on the Occupy Wall Street movement, and laments income inequality in America. “You cannot have a social contract with the enormous income disparity — you’re going to slice the country down the middle. It’s not going to hold.”

Perhaps the first thing to point out is that Springsteen’s estimated to be worth $200 million, meaning The Boss is doing more than his fair share to contribute to income inequality in America. (He probably ranks in the top 100th of the top one percent.)

As for the substantive issues surrounding income inequality, I agree with Springsteen that wide disparities in income and living standards can pose a danger to our social well-being. But the issue is far more complicated than he acknowledges. A National Affairs essay I co-authored points out that (a) income taxes in America are the most progressive among the rich nations in the world; (b) inequality is driven in part by the growing work-force participation rate of women; (c) federal old-age entitlement programs have become less progressive (which argues for means-testing Social Security and Medicare, a policy that is fiercely rejected by liberals); and (d) one of the quickest ways to increased income equality is a severe recession (since severe recessions destroy capital, which hurts top income earners more than average workers).

Another factor has contributed to income inequality. In their book The Winner-Take-All Society, economists Robert Frank and Philip Cook argue that certain markets are defined by the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few top performers. The winner-take-all model has come to dominate a number of professional sectors, including sports, art, acting, and … music.

Oh, and one other thing. In his interview with Stewart, Springsteen laments the fact that “nuanced political dialogue or creative expression seems like it’s been hamstrung by the decay of political speech and it’s infantilized our national discourse.” This lamentation comes from a fellow who in 2003 told a crowd at Fed Ex field, “It’s time to impeach the president [George W. Bush]” and in a 2007 Rolling Stone interview, when asked how the Bush years would be remembered, answered,

Many parts will be remembered with the same degree of shame as the Japanese internment camps are remembered — illegal wiretapping, rendition, the abuse of prisoners, cutting back our civil rights, no habeas corpus. I don’t think most people thought they’d ever see the country move far enough to the right to see those things happen here. And I don’t believe those are things that strengthen us. The moral authority to stand up and say, ‘We are the Americans,” is invaluable. It’s been deeply damaged, and it’s going to take quite a while to repair that damage, if we can. This will be remembered as a low point in American history — as simple as that.

People are going to go, “Was everybody sleeping?” But people get frightened, they get crazy. You wonder where political hysteria can take you–I think we’ve tasted some of that.

All I want to do is be one of the guys that says, “When that stuff was going down, I threw my hat in the ring and tried to stand on what I felt was the right side of history.” What can a poor boy do, except play in a rock & roll band?

Yes indeed. What can a $200 million poor boy from New Jersey do in the face of impeachable offenses, Japanese-style internment camp shame, no habeas corpus, a low point in American history, and of course the loss of nuanced political dialogue? And what’s he supposed to do when the politician he backed to the hilt (Barack Obama) becomes president and continues many of the policies he denounced, as well as increasing drone strikes that kill innocent people and justifying the targeted killing of American citizens overseas?

I understand that there is a mythology that has grown up around Springsteen; to many of his fans he’s a Voice of Conscience and a musician whom we should take very, very seriously. It’s just that sometimes the jarring contradictions in Springsteen — the fantastically rich rock star bemoaning income inequality while presenting himself as just a blue-collar rock-and-roller from Jersey; the man who longs for nuanced political discourse while reciting shallow left-wing talking points — makes you want to look hard and look twice and wonder if it’s all just a brilliant disguise.